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Veteran Suicides a New Epidemic in U.S. Military

For every two American combatants killed by enemy action, one more dies by suicide. The Department of Defense reports that in the last 10 years 4,989 military personnel have been killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq, while in the same period 2,293 active duty personnel have taken their own lives. American veterans of these and other wars account for 20% of U.S. suicides. The reality is that this country is now facing an epidemic of dire national security and humanitarian consequences as an increasing segment of our military population is turning to suicide.

Direct causes of this upward trend largely stem from issues of mental health which include traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder, survivor’s guilt as well as increased drug and alcohol dependency. These are often exacerbated by the transition to civilian life that removes many of the previous support networks of service life.

Economic issues are also prevalent, as veterans often find themselves in trying financial situations as they attempt to reintegrate into a civilian society with high unemployment where the few jobs available have little demand for military skills. It does not help that the while the Veteran’s Administration budget of $138 billion has almost quadrupled since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is still woefully inadequate to serve expanding veteran numbers and requirements.

Maybe the biggest problem confronting those that need help is the continuing stigma that comes with seeking out a mental health professional. This needs to change both within the military and in society as a whole. While the number of service members that pursue mental health help has increased, the stigma against asking for help is still strong – 43% of those service members who killed themselves in 2010 did not seek assistance through official channels.

The federal government is trying to do more to address the issue. The Department ofDefense lists the program Warrior Care as one of its top three issues and the Department of Veteran Affairs has devoted substantial resources into programs like its Veteran’s Crisis Line (1 800-273-TALK). The non-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is another organization that provides mental health help which has proven to be effective.

While throwing money at the issue is not a solution in itself, greater funding for effective programs is an essential factor in curbing the rising number of veterans that take their own lives. The U.S. government must contribute more to the long term care that our service members deserve. One positive example in the 2012 federal budget is the $40 million earmarked for DoD and VA programs to help prevent suicides. More money must be forthcoming.

It helps veterans to talk with someone who has shared similar experiences, and one way to effectively use future funding would be to provide more counseling education and paid positions for returning service members. This would afford veterans greater employment opportunities while offering continued service to their comrades.

The cost of foreign intervention goes far beyond each year’s budget and calendar, and history has shown that service member suicide rates increase during times of military draw-down. We must now do our part to help those that have carried the burden, both physically and mentally, for our nation's past ten years of international conflict. There is still much more funding required to meet the needs of those members of our military who have served us. We must not neglect to now serve them.

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